On a dusty cliff overlooking the village of Maaloula, a small Christian enclave north of Damascus, a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary maintains a watchful eye over one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Thousands of Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians flock to Maaloula to celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th of each year.
With its seventeen churches, monasteries and holy relics, this UNESCO world heritage site is one of the last remaining settlements in the Middle East where Aramaic, the language of Christ, continues to be spoken by the local population.
Maaloula's two famous monasteries serve as a reminder of the persecution that early Christians faced. Each building is named after two of the church's early saints: Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius) - a Roman soldier who was executed for refusing to denounce his Christian faith and Mar Taqla (Saint Thecla) - a noble woman who had been sentenced to death twice for dedicating her life to the teachings of Christ.
While Christmas for the people of Maaloula is typically a time of great festivity, this year the celebratory mood will be strangely absent.
Like many other ancient Christian towns throughout the Middle East, the people of Maaloula will be forced to celebrate Christmas under the threat of violence and attack.
In early September, the Syrian rebel group “al-Nusra Front,” an organization linked to al-Qaeda, invaded Maaloula before being driven out by government forces shortly after.
Three months later on December 2nd, the British-based "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights" announced that “al-Nusra Front” had returned and were subsequently occupying the town’s two ancient monasteries.
The attack culminated with the kidnapping of 12 Greek Orthodox nuns, whom were forcibly taken from their monastery by armed men.
The freedom that Maaloula residents have to speak their language, practice their faith and foster their identity have increasingly come under threat since 2011 when civil strife first spread throughout the country.
Christians throughout Syria are justifiably concerned that the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad will lead to a Salafi-inspired Islamic State, similar to that which developed in Egypt after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
But while thousands of people observe Christmas in refugee camps and in war-torn villages throughout Syria, the rest of the world continues to remain indifferent to their suffering. It is through such indifference that Western governments become complicit in a modern-day tragedy unfolding before our very eyes.
The time for the West to act is now.
“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Ellie Wiesel, KBE